Howarth, Ingraffea Shale Gas Study on Global Warming Discredited by U.S. Department of Energy

A little more than a month ago, Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology and environmental biology, along with two other Cornell professors, Renee Santoro and Tony Ingraffea, published a peer-reviewed study in the journal Climate Change titled, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations.” The study evaluates natural gas from shale compared with other energy sources with respect to how much “greenhouse gases” are created during the extraction process. The study makes the claim that shale gas extraction is actually worse for the environment than burning coal because of greenhouse gases.

The initial media reaction was a breathless Paul Revere-style recitation of the slug “shale gas worse for global warming than coal.” Howarth’s paper has now been roundly refuted by none other than the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea’s conclusions are based on assumptions rather than hard data, and those assumptions were wrong.

…the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has applied ISO standard methodology, and a substantial understanding of industry operations, to do the calculation itself… Its conclusion? Used to generate electricity, natural gas – conventional or not – results in far less emissions than coal.

Using a 100-year global warming potential and assuming an average power plant, unconventional gas results in 54% less lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal does. Even using a 20-year global warming potential, as Howarth controversially argues one should, the savings from substituting unconventional gas for coal are almost 50%. The NETL study acknowledges – and explores – a range of uncertainties. But it finds nothing close to the problems that Howarth claims.

Howarth found a large fraction of produced gas from unconventional wells never made it to end users, assumed that all of that gas was vented as methane, and thus concluded that the global warming impacts were huge. As the NETL work explains, though, 62% of that gas isn’t lost at all – it’s “used to power equipment”.*

Don’t hold your breath that you’ll now see headlines that say “Sorry, Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea were wrong, natural gas really is better for reducing greenhouse gas than coal.”

*Council on Foreign Relations/Michael A. Levi (May 20, 2011) – Rebutting the Howarth Shale Gas Study

  • Bob Rosen

     Your assertion is pure speculation on the part of one blogger, some
    guy named Micael Levi, at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    It’s not a
    paper or a study, it’s just a slide show presented by someone from NETL at
    Cornell, and the actual slide referred to by Levi on p. 25 acknowledges a figure
    of 4.2% of ALL extracted gas is either fugitive or vented. And that’s AFTER you
    subtract the 62% that it says is “used to power equipment.” And only 16% of ALL
    the gas referred to on the slide comes from shale-gas production. It’s all
    lumped together. No percentage is given for just shale gas. 

    The Howarth
    study estimates that “3.6 to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production
    escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a

    The NETL slide show draws NO conclusion at all with regard to the
    Howarth study, which isn’t even mentioned.

    “Discredited” by 1 person
    drawing conclusions for which he has no basis. And then repeated by you as
    though it were fact. In short, the usual overstated and inaccurate BS that fills
    your website.

  • Jim Willis

    Thanks for keeping us on the straight and narrow Bob. 🙂

  • Lee


    Can we assume you are a grad student at Cornell?   

  • Bob Rosen

    One conclusion that CAN be drawn a lot more easily than the
    conclusion you drew: As MDN seems to be the only RELIABLE news source in the
    country reporting that the Dept. of Energy had “discredited” the Howrath study,
    MDN is NOT a reliable news source.  


    Well, at least you’ve published my comment. And I wish to add
    that I don’t mean to imply that the Howrath study is correct, even Prof. Howrath
    doesn’t say that. BUT what he does says is certainly valid: Methane is such a
    potent greenhouse gas (some 40 times more potent than CO2) that only a tiny
    shift of a couple of percentage points in the total amount that is escaping into
    the air during the entire life-cycle of shale gas production means that the
    O&G industry can no longer be touting gas as a “transition fuel” that is clearly superior to coal. 

    It will take a lot more than distorting the data on a single PPT lecture slide to prove otherwise. It will take actual peer-reviewed scientific studies. Whatever the actual numbers are, they are going to show that the
    O&G lobby has not been telling the whole truth, that they have been misleading people, trying to pull the wool over our eyes,
    per usual.    

  • Anonymous
  • Jim Willis

    Thanks for that link. Former PA DEP secretary John Hanger is also pointing out the flaws in the Howarth/Cornell study.

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